Opposition to telescope plan gains momentum

by Tom Ford

As the University considers whether to become partners with a controversial telescope observatory in Arizona, opposition to involvement from the American Indian community on campus and across the state has mounted.

Last January, the University received a $5 million grant from Hubbard Broadcasting, which it used to purchase a 5 percent share of the Large Binocular Telescope being built at the Mount Graham International Observatory. Operated by the University of Arizona, the observatory is located approximately 30 miles from the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

The Board of Regents still must approve the purchase.

During the past two weeks representatives of opposition groups and the San Carlos Apache and Minnesota American Indian tribes have pleaded their case against the purchase before University committees and community gatherings.

Opponents say the telescope project desecrates areas held sacred by the Apache community.

They have been joined in protest by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and faculty with the University’s American Indian studies department.

Members of the University’s astronomy department and Institute of Technology advocate involvement and believe compromises between the Apache and observatory project are possible.

But University President Mark Yudof has said the University is “taking time to review this project more thoroughly” and will consult with the Social Concerns Committee and President’s American Indian Advisory Committee before making a decision.

“We need to take a stand,” said Raleigh Thompson, a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe and former chairman of San Carlos Apache Tribal Council.

Speaking at a Jan. 16 presidential advisory committee meeting, Thompson said Mount Graham is the site of burial grounds and has been an integral part of Apache religion since the beginning of time.

He said members of his tribe are “simple people” and Apache culture does not want to “go beyond the creator’s mystery in space.” The observatory’s presence insults what the Apache hold sacred, he said.

At the end of the meeting, Vikki Howard, community relations coordinator in the American Indian studies department, declared her support of the Apache cause.

Howard said many American Indian studies faculty members are drafting a letter to be sent next week to Yudof, urging the University to respect Apache religious rights and decline involvement.

On Jan. 15, the Indian affairs council, which consists of 11 Minnesota tribes, passed a unanimous resolution requesting the University and all other institutions to “look elsewhere for their astronomical developments.”

The Indian affairs council heard testimony from Thompson that day and concluded the observatory “continues to harm western Apache people, their culture and their religion.”

But Leonard Kuhi, head of the University’s astronomy department, said he was not at the Jan. 15 meeting, and no one from his department was consulted before the resolution was passed.

Kuhi said protecting the astronomers’ interests and the Apache’s concerns do not have to be mutually exclusive. He said the observatory occupies 8.6 acres of the mountain’s many thousands and there’s enough room for everyone’s needs.

“I do not see the conflict there,” Kuhi said.

He said the department has sought involvement in a major project such as the observatory for more than 20 years. The 5 percent University share translates into approximately 17 viewing nights, which could be used on the LBT or other telescopes to which the University of Arizona has access.

Beyond the initial $5 million investment, he said annual operating costs for the University are expected to total $170,000.

Ted Davis, dean of the University’s Institute of Technology, said this project is “extremely important to the University.”

With mirrors larger than the Hubble satellite, Davis said, the LBT will be among the best telescopes on earth.

After becoming aware of the cultural concerns last month, he said the University would “not lightly walk away” from involvement.

The University is not alone in experiencing opposition on this issue.

During the 1990s, a number of universities that either considered involvement or were formal partners – including the universities of Pittsburgh and Toronto – came under pressure from faculty and their communities and were sites of demonstrations and protests.

In 1994, the Pittsburgh City Council passed a resolution against the University of Pittsburgh’s $15 million investment in the observatory, saying the project “tarnishes the image of the Pittsburgh community.”

At about the same time, the University of Toronto sought similar involvement.

Ernest Seaquist, chairman of the astronomy department at the time, said several faculty members, particularly in the university’s anthropology department, opposed joining the project. He said activity on campus became “quite intense and well organized.”

Besides receiving constant phone calls, Seaquist said, one day a group of American Indians from the Mohawk tribe marched around the astronomy department building. Near lunchtime, he said, six or seven of the marchers entered the building and occupied his office for 20 minutes.

While the University of Toronto opted against involvement, Seaquist said the decision was based on economic factors and not the protests.

“We just could not meet our financial obligations,” he said.

Opposition activity will continue Wednesday with a rally and vigil to be held outside Eastcliff to encourage Yudof to meet with Apache leaders.

Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]